By Geo Ong
French cinema, especially in the 1960s, boasts a rich and influential history. Fewer examples exist of an art form dominated and defining a specific time and segment of popular culture as film did in France at that time. The films and filmmakers of the French New Wave redefined cinema as a whole during that decade, and names like Jean-Luc Godard and François Trauffaut will continue to be discussed as an integral chapter of film history for years to come.
Jean-Pierre Melville, however, is one name that isn’t discussed nearly as much the major players of the French New Wave. Melville, who had already been making films fifteen years before the French New Wave began, had significant influence on Godard and Trauffaut and would go on to make his most important films at the same time they were making theirs.
While Godard, Trauffaut, and the filmmakers of the French New Wave reinvented film using explicit techniques, Melville opted to stick closer to the so-called Hollywood model, specifically film noir from the 30s and 40s, injecting what would become his own French flair and attitude. If Trauffaut turned the old model on its ear, and Godard turned it completely upside-down, Melville kept it upright, stripped it of its parts, replacing them with Melville-manufactured trademarks. The film noir genre, so absolute in its makeup, was consistently in danger of going stale; Melville would go on to revive, improve, and master the old tradition.
Three of Melville’s most well-known films—Le Deuxième Souffle, Le Samouraï, and Army of Shadows—all contain elements that make up the Jean-Pierre Melville noir model. In the first two films, the main character is a lone criminal; In the last film, Army of Shadows, the main characters are a small band of resistance fighters treated like criminals. All of them are alone in a battle against a much larger enemy. These stakes and these odds are how Melville humanises the gangsters, killers, and criminals in his films. He chooses to tell their story, and despite the fact that they are oftentimes morally ambiguous, you seem to root for them. At its basest level, you simply want to see them stay alive to keep the story from ending.
The high-stakes plots and breathless action scenes in Melville’s movies are interspersed with seemingly mundane details. The main character brushing his teeth, eating a meal, or taking a walk. These scenes are usually void of music, with the sound of footsteps, objects clanging, and squeaking door hinges providing the music of real life. Additionally, Melville always shot in real locations rather than sets. All of these stylistic choices aided in the starkness of the character’s reality, which you believe for two hours to be true.